November 21, 2002 11:00 pm
‘When I was a kid they (wolves) were common in the Cascades.' – Bill Brown, age 88 ().
‘When I was a kid they (wolves) were common in the Cascades.' – Bill Brown, age 88 ().

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Bill Brown turned down a chance to make history in the late 1940s.

Today the former La Grande resident has no regrets.

Brown, who then worked in Western Oregon for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, was offered $500 to kill a wolf. The offer was made by a man who wanted to make a wolf mount.

Brown and a trapper who worked with him knew where a wolf was in the Cascades. Their knowledge was prized because wolves were then virtually extinct in Oregon.

Despite the offer of the princely sum of $500, Brown and the trapper turned down the offer.

"Neither of us wanted to do it. We didn't want to be famous for getting rid of the last wolf in Oregon,'' said Brown, who now lives in the Spokane area.

Brown came to La Grande in 1949. At that time there was no evidence of wolves in this region and nothing to indicate that wolves had recently been here.

"There were not even any wolf stories,'' Brown said.

No wolves were moving into Northeast Oregon from Idaho because there were none in the Gem State. Today there is a strong possibility that wolves will move into Northeast Oregon from Idaho. Idaho's wolf population is growing because of a federal reintroduction program. Idaho now has about 250 wolves.

Brown remembers a time when Oregon also had a healthy wolf population.

"When I was a kid they were common in the Cascades,'' the retired biologist said.

His earliest encounters with wolves was as a child. Brown's family was camped at a trail shelter near the upper South Umpqua River when a pair of yearling wolves wandered in. Brown's mother was not intimidated.

"My mother grabbed a newspaper and chased them out,'' Brown said.

To see yearlings who had strayed from their pack is rare since pack members usually watch their young closely.

"Something must have happened to their pack,'' Brown said.

Wolves generally are leery of people, which may explain why there is no record of a healthy wild wolf ever killing a person in North America.

Wolves are wary of people but not dogs.

"A wolf is a real fighter. No single dog is a match for a wolf,'' Brown said.

Brown, 88, once had a dog that chased after a wolf. The wolf turned on the dog but the canine escaped unharmed. The dog did not forget the encounter.

"I could always tell when he smelled a wolf after that because he would get behind my heels,'' Brown said.

Wolves are not hard to detect because they have large feet and scratch the ground to leave territorial markings.

"They leave a lot of sign,'' Brown said.

Wolf tracks resemble those of cougars. The difference is that wolf tracks have toenail marks. Cougars, which have retractable claws, do not have toenails.

Bounty records

Wolves were once so abundant in Oregon that from Oct. 1, 1913, to May 10, 1914, bounties were paid on 30 wolves, according to the ODFW. The last bounty for a wolf in Oregon was paid in 1946 for an animal killed in the Umpqua National Forest.

The state was giving about $30 per wolf when it paid its last bounty, Brown said.

The bounty system undoubtedly was a key factor in the decline of wolves. The last remaining wolves in Oregon probably died in the early 1940s.

For example, in the Elk Meadows area above Sutherlin, wolves completely disappeared during World War II. Brown recalled that when he returned to Elk Meadows following World War II he could tell right away that the wolves were gone. Coyotes were in the area, and they try to stay away from wolves.

"Wolves are death to coyotes,'' Brown said.

They are also death to cougars. A lone wolf can kill a cougar.

"Wolves are very capable. They can take care of themselves. A wolf is not a big dog,'' Brown said with a laugh.

Wolves not only attack cougars, they also compete with them for territory, the retired biologist said.

Brown lived in La Grande for 52 years before moving to the Spokane area earlier this year. Brown retired at the end of 1976 after serving as the ODFW's Northeast Region supervisor for 27 years. Today at age 88 he is still active and spends three hours a day trimming and shearing brush.

The outdoorsman is glad that wolves may begin moving into Oregon from Idaho.

"They are the spirit of the wilderness,'' Brown said.